By Trent England, founder and executive director of Save Our States
I call it a “toothpaste issue,” as in “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” If we lose the Electoral College—our state-by-state process for electing the president—we won’t get it back. And we’re perilously close to a tipping point, with the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) almost three-quarters of the way to hijacking presidential elections.
Another such issue was the selection of US Senators. Once the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, there was no going back to the original constitutional design where state legislatures chose senators. The radical nature of that change remains little understood because few Americans today think seriously about political systems and their incentives. Would a Senate chosen by state legislators approve “maintenance of effort” requirements or other manipulations of state budget and policy processes? Likely not. From the New Deal through the Great Society and up to the Affordable Care Act, all these programs would have been different if required to pass a Senate that was accountable to state policymakers.
Now the way we choose presidents is under siege. The American Founders understood that the mode of appointment (and reappointment) is one of the most powerful incentives that operates on public officials. This is why they rejected the initial proposal to let Congress choose the president: they did not want the executive controlled by a coalition of congressmen. And they rejected a popular vote because they did not want the largest states to have too much power.
When James Madison created the Electoral College, it was accepted by nearly all the Founders as a brilliant compromise. Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist No. 68, declared of the Electoral College, “if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.” It puts the power in state legislatures to figure out how best to represent their own state in presidential elections. The result—how the Electoral College has worked throughout American history—is even better than the Founders had hoped.
The Electoral College creates a powerful incentive for political factions to build national coalitions. Today, certain partisans are unhappy with exactly this feature of the system. The Electoral College forces them to pay attention not voters who don’t live in big cities or along the coasts. Why should they have to visit Wisconsin or Nevada? Why not just drive up turnout in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and a few other major metropolitan areas?
This is where the National Popular Vote interstate compact comes from. After Al Gore lost, one of his wealthy supporters created the NPV campaign as an “end run” around the Constitution. It asks state legislatures to pass a law that changes how they choose presidential electors. Instead of choosing them based on what the voters in their state want, they would collect vote totals from all of the states and choose electors based on the national popular vote.
In other words, NPV would hijack the Electoral College, manipulating the Founders’ design to force it to rubber stamp the popular vote result. These state laws are part of an interstate compact, and they take effect when enough states pass it that they together control 270 or more electoral votes—a majority that would control the outcome of presidential elections. Legislatures in 15 states plus the District of Columbia have so far passed NPV’s bill, controlling a total of 196 electoral votes. In one of those states—Colorado—voters may reject the compact through a referendum process on Election Day.
Save Our States exists to educate Americans about the benefits of the Electoral College and the dangers of NPV. It began in 2009 as a project of the Freedom Foundation, and later moved to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Today, we partner with SPN members around the country to preserve the Electoral College and protect the integrity of presidential elections. Our team speaks frequently at public events and legislator briefings organized by state think tanks. We provide books and other materials to our allies.
Grassroots get fired up by attacks on the Constitution. And many Americans are simply intrigued by the Electoral College—they realize they don’t know much about it and are eager to learn. Providing resources about the constitutional process is a good way for state think thanks to connect with and expand their audience.
Save Our States has also recently helped create a feature-length documentary, Safeguard: An Electoral College Story. The film is available on Amazon and tells the story of federalism and the Electoral College, focusing on how these structures protect minority rights. We are glad to partner with allies to distribute the film, either through online viewing events on in-person screenings where possible.
The existence of states is an existential issue for state-based think tanks. One of the core elements of state sovereignty is control over elections—and this is preserved, for now, by the Electoral College. Any move away from the Electoral College will necessitate greater federal control of elections and further degrade constitutional federalism. Yet together, Save Our States and state-based think tanks can preserve the Electoral College and protect our constitutional order.
If your organization is interested in partnering with Save Our States, please reach out to Trent England at firstname.lastname@example.org.